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Art and climate

Filed under: — gavin @ 8 March 2006

Washington_Crossing_the_Delaware As anecdotal evidence of past climate change goes, some of the most pleasant to contemplate involve paintings of supposedly typical events that involve the weather. Given the flourishing of secular themes in European art from the Renaissance on, most of this art comes from the 16th to 19th centuries. As readers here will know, this coincides (in the public mind at least) with the so-called ‘Little Ice Age’ and somewhat inevitably this canon of work has been combed over with a fine tooth comb for evidence of particularly cold conditions.

The image that brought this issue to mind was seeing ‘Washington crossing the Delaware’ at the Met the other day and seeing the iceberg-like ice it was imagined (75 years after the event) that the rebels had had to row through in 1776. The first thing I noticed was that the ice is completely wrong for a river (which is just one of the errors associated with this picture apparently). River ice is almost always of the ‘pancake’ variety (as this photo from the Hudson river shows), and doesn’t form ‘growlers’. However, the confusion of artistic license with climatology appears to be a bit of a theme in other oft-cited works as well….

The_HarvestersHunters in the Snow (1565)The most often shown images in this context are some of the winter landscapes painted by Pieter Breughel the Elder around 1565 and by subsequent followers of fashion (the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna has a particularly fine collection if you are looking for something to do at EGU next month). The “Census in Bethlehem” (1566) is a snowy fantasy scene that ended up on the front cover of Brian Fagan’s book “The Little Ice Age”, but the one that pops up most frequently is ‘Hunters in the Snow’ (1565); another fantasy picture (who knew there were Alps in Belgium?). This painting was actually part of a series of 6 or 12 monthly or seasonal paintings. Of the five that survive, the one corresponding to September (‘The Harvesters’, 1565) shows some very pleasant weather indeed. No-one appears to be using that to argue for warm 16th century summers though….

Winter Central England Temperature and Frost FairsFrost Fair 1814The winter of 1564-1565 was however particularly cold in Europe and was one of the few occasions when a ‘frost fair’ was set up on the frozen River Thames in London. Other freezings of the river that far down the estuary were recorded in 923, 1063, 1076, 1410 (record freezing), 1536, 1608, 1683-4, 1715-6, 1739-40, Dec 1788, 1794-1795 and 1814 (only 4 days) (various sources, including here and here*). The fair in 1814 was the last one ever, mainly due to the demolition of the old London Bridge in 1831 and the increasing embankment of the river over the Victorian period, such that the river became much narrower and faster flowing, making it more difficult for ice to build up behind the bridges. It is often said that the frost fairs are indicative of the ‘Little Ice Age’ in the UK but the dates show quite a spread over periods that were thought to be generally warm as well as cold, and so is more likely indicative of simple weather variability. A brief examination of the Central England Temperature record (available from 1659), shows that in particular the winter of 1962-1963 (and potentially, 1878-1879) was easily as cold as some of the earlier frost fair years (which otherwise line up very nicely). However, in 1963 the Thames only froze down to Teddington (significantly up river from London), clearly showing that something other than climate was responsible for the recent lack of winter mid-river frolicking….

One of the most useful applications of art to climate though, are the realistic historical depictions of mountain glaciers particularly in the Alps, but also further afield. Glaciers have much longer timescales than weather events, and so a picture of a glacier is intergrating more climatic information than a snow-clad Flemish village scene. One of the most famous sets of images, of course, is the Argentiere glacier at Chamonix which was first used by Le Roy Ladurie in the 1960′s to demonstrate the changes in the modern period. This example certainly isn’t unique, but it is quite dramatic:

Chamonix 1850 Chamonix early 1900s? Chamonix 1966 Chamonix today

(Pictures 1 and 3 are from an encyclopedia article on the Little Ice Age . More examples of old glacier art can be seen here, and there are some more descriptions of the art of climate discussed in two articles in Weather magazine, Burroughs (1981) looked at this in a little more depth, as did Peter Robinson (2005) – apparently both are worth reading).

Anyway, all this to show that while art may imitate life, its imitation of climate needs to be considered quite carefully….

*Update: Phil Jones kindly pointed me to Table App. V. 6/7 in Lamb’s (1977) book where a fuller accounting of the Thames freeze-overs can be found: the full list of confirmed freezings in London from 1400 on is; 1408, 1435, 1506, 1514, 1537, 1565, 1595, 1608, 1621, 1635, 1649, 1655, 1663, 1666, 1677, 1684, 1695, 1709, 1716, 1740, 1776, 1795 and 1814. There are also a couple of possible reports for 1768 and 1785. I have not found any definitive listing for pre-1400 occasions other than those linked to above.


61 Responses to “Art and climate”

  1. 51
    tom brogle says:

    Gavin, Re your comment to # 32
    “You have correctly noted that the absolute surface temperature varies enormously on very short distances as a function of the terrain (something that is true for rural as well as urban environments”
    I am not bothered about the absolute temperature.I am interested in comparative temperatures of different environments, a short distance apart, with little change in terrain.
    Your mention of absolute temperature is a complete red herring.

    [Response: No. You should be concerned with the changes of temperature in different environments (i.e. daily/seasonal/annual anomalies). Simply noting that temperatures are different on the shady and sunny side of the street is not relevant. - gavin]

  2. 52
    Dano says:

    51:

    I am interested in comparative temperatures of different environments, a short distance apart, with little change in terrain. [linky added]

    Your interest for knowledge in this subject is easily met. As mentioned previously, you can pique your interest by visiting any decent uni library and perusing the literature.

    F’r instance, I particularly like Shashua-Bar’s work in this area.

    HTH,

    D

  3. 53
    tom brogle says:

    Re 52
    Exactly, this coincides with my findings.However I am investigating the temperatures in a temperate climate during winter.This has also shown that the effect of central heating can be a factor. I am now investigating the effect of rainfall and the the absorbtion of solar heat by structures and paving etc.
    It is obvious that where there is no vegetation the temperature will be warmer but there are indications that rainfall has a substantial effect on temperature differentials
    Gavin: Re your comment 51
    The sun wasn’t shining and it had been cloudy for days
    I am investigating urban heating and I would never measure the the temperature difference between the sunny and shady side of a street I am not so stupid that I would not standardise my measurement conditions. I don’t think that you are so stupid to seriously think so.

  4. 54
    Dano says:

    53:

    It is obvious that where there is no vegetation the temperature will be warmer but there are indications that rainfall has a substantial effect on temperature differentials

    Yes. In fact it is well known as soon as you get off the pavement into irrigated soils, the temp drops dramatically; this is, BTW, the flaw in the “UHI explains all of the sfc temp rise” argument. NDVI is a decent proxy for non-urban soils.

    You might want to look at Oke’s work to consider a direction to go in, else Seoul and Japanese cities are well-studied, and usu. a study has a winter component [most UHI studies at least have some winter data].

    Best,

    D

  5. 55
    Tom Brogle says:

    Dano
    Thanks, but really I prefer to find out for myself
    Interestingly the paper on pavement vs irrigated land has hasthe suggestion that
    “The use of satellite-derived data may contribute to a globally consistent method for analysis of the urban heat island bias.”
    Which says in effect that there wasn’t in 1998 a globally consistent method for analysis of the urban heat island bias.
    That is what I am trying in my small way to develop since I am totaly convinced that UHI is incorporated in the global average temperatures and papers like the ones you quote seem to me to confirm my view

  6. 56
  7. 57
    Dano says:

    55:

    That is what I am trying in my small way to develop since I am totaly convinced that UHI is incorporated in the global average temperatures and papers like the ones you quote seem to me to confirm my view

    Yup. It is in the global average temps. Steven hints at this in his reply to you above.

    And, BTW, no one says that it’s not, despite a few assertions to the contrary. It’s corrected for and the correction factor has been estimated since at least 1989.

    If you’re finding out for yourself with transect work, you’ll want a soils person on your team. You can begin to estimate the complexity by a simple exploration: go to the CIMIS website, register to view raw data, then go to NOAA and get the temps for KSMF and KSAC, look at their differences (KSAC surrounded by concrete, KSMF by fields), see those temp differences, and then use the CIMIS stations to get temp differences in radii. Then overlay soil types with clay fractions to estimate WHC. All very simple to do and you don’t have to purchase data.

    This exercise will be enlightening for you.

    Else you can purchase AVHRR/Landsat and DMSP raw data to process night-time light data to estimate extent of UHI, then overlay GHCN network, then use NVDI data as proxy for soil moisture.

    If you have another method, great! Let us know when your paper gets accepted. Good luck in your work.

    HTH,

    D

  8. 58
    tom brogle says:

    Dano Thanks
    I will check my data against the the data that you have referred me to.
    Particular weather stations are cited as being rural when they are not and others are cited as being urban when they are miles away from the closest population centre.
    I am assured that GISS does not have the time to sort
    these stations out (since they believe their effect is nuetral) so I doubt that they have time to correct individual station temperatures for the effects you have detailed.

  9. 59
    Sara Mickel says:

    Gavin –

    I visit your climate website regularly because it is well-done. In reading the comments about art and artistic license in depicting weather, you (or someone) say that river ice doesn’t form growlers. Please visit the website I’ve supplied:

    http://www.ndsu.nodak.edu/fargoflood/

    and click on the 2006 flood link. You will see, quite plainly, that river ice does indeed form growlers, and therefore, it’s not impossible that the Delaware was frozen and in and ice-out condition when George Washington forded it in a boat. The fact that the painting was done in the 19th century in the Romantic manner doesn’t matter. Conditions on the Delaware River may have been like those depicted in the painting at the time it was produced. Since none of us were there at the time, how do we know what it was like on a day-to-day basis?
    To state that river ice doesn’t form growlers is inappropriate. It does happen; it happened on the Des Plaines and Fox Rivers a few years ago and was videotaped by homeowners with houses along the riverbanks and shown several times on the Chicago evening and morning news. The “growlers”, or ice chunks, were enormous — up to at least ten feet in height. The local Chicago news stations can supply footage to support this. It would be better to make an inquiry into spring ice-outs on various rivers over a period of time and what form they have taken up to, and including, the present, than to make a statement based on ice-outs on one river, the Hudson, which is only one of many thousands. Please bear in mind that any river can form an ice dam and when conditions are right, the dam will break, floodwater will push the large chunks of ice and debris it collects along in front of it. This is NOT a gentle process. Just ask the people along the North Fork and the Red River.
    It is as inappropriate to state that river ice doesn’t form growlers as it would be to say that the Mississippi River doesn’t freeze over in the winter — and while you may not remember it ever doing so, it did do just that in January 1976. In fact, it was such an oddity that it was shown on the news on the BBC in January 1976, when I was on a student tour in England. It was, in fact, so cold that when I arrived back home at O’Hare Airport, I had to wait three hours while the luggage compartment doors were thawed out so that they could be opened, another two hours for my car to be thawed and started, and I got home, completely exhausted, at 3AM. You don’t forget things like this.

  10. 60
    Steve Sadlov says:

    Just by way of a small sitrep to depict what might or might not represent historical “norms” and “extremes” …. so on another thread I had mentioned the persistent Siberia Express pattern here on the West Coast of the US. Dano also commented on it and its apparent causes.

    March turned out the be one of our coldest and wettest on record. At a number of locations in the mountains ~ 150 miles east of here March turned out to have the greatest amount of monthly snowfall ever recorded in any month of the year.

    The futures traders who were paying attention made money off of betting on an all time high number for heating degree days for places such as Sacramento and San Francisco for March.

    April is off to a very wet and cold start. Stay tuned …..

  11. 61
    Stephen Berg says:

    Re: #60, “The futures traders who were paying attention made money off of betting on an all time high number for heating degree days for places such as Sacramento and San Francisco for March.

    April is off to a very wet and cold start. Stay tuned …..”

    while April is off to a very warm (5-10 degrees C above normal) and fairly dry start, apart from this morning’s (Tuesday) thunderstorm, here in Winnipeg, Manitoba.


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